Droughts cut Europe’s food output, raise fire risks

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Droughts in southern and eastern Europe are contributing to the global decline in grain production while also elevating concern about the long-term impact on freshwater supplies.

The European Commission, which has declared 2012 the Year of Water, is preparing a review some of Europe’s water legislation partly with climate change and extreme weather events in mind.

Food security and how the EU safeguards its liquid resources are among the topics due to be discussed during World Water Week events that begin in Stockholm on 26 August.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that food prices rose 6% overall in July, with maize soaring 23% and wheat up 19%. The higher prices are mainly blamed on a devastating drought in the American heartland and lower than expect wheat yields in Russia.

In Europe, Strategie Grains last week slashed its forecast for EU grain maize output by 7.1 million tonnes to 58.1 million, a 13% drop from 2011.

"Maize development has been severely impacted by the hot, dry weather in central and southern Europe," the French-based analytical service told Reuters. "The damage is irreversible, although an improvement in the weather would provide better conditions for filling the grains that exist."

Strategie Grains lowered its global forecast for maize production in 2012/13 by nearly 70 million tonnes to 829.1 million tonnes.

Fire risk high in some areas

A mix of hellish weather and prolonged dry spells has also contributed to damaging forest fires in Portugal, Spain, southern France and Greece, as well as in the Balkans and Turkey. On Friday, the European Forest Fire Information System warned of extreme or high risk of fires across much of southern Europe and as far north as Hungary and western Slovakia.

The EU’s European Drought Observatory reported drought conditions in parts of France, Germany, Spain and Italy as well as the North Atlantic Faroe Islands, the self-governing region of Denmark.

Prolonged dry spells have threatened parts of China, Russia, Australia, France, Spain, Portugal and the southern United States in recent years – affecting food output but also raising worries about the long-term stability of water supplies. England’s third dry winter in a row led British authorities to call for conservation measures earlier this year.

Weather experts differ on whether these occurrences are cyclical nuisances or evidence of changing climate patterns that could grow more severe in the decades ahead. But there is general agreement that humans need to change their consumption habits and become more efficient water users.

“Climate variability is something humanity has faced throughout our history,” Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told EURACTIV ahead of the World Water Forum in March, “but the severity of the droughts is increasing.”

Calls for EU action

While many parts of Europe have ample water supplies, it is not immune. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany warn that EU countries face challenges from both water shortages and pollution, and urge better governance and direction from the EU.

Studies show that water withdrawals from rivers such as the Andalusia basin in Spain, Sado in Portugal and Rhine and Rhône in France are considered unsustainable, while the Elbe, Weser and Rhine in Germany and the Thames in Britain are considered stressed.

And that does not begin to account for pollution and ecological damage, a recent Helmholtz study says, calling for stronger protections against pollution and waste at the national and EU levels.

The European Commission carried out an in-depth assessment of water scarcity and drought in the European Union in 2006 and 2007.

Water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone, says a Commission-backed study. Changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase savings.

The EU executive also presented a set of policy options to increase water savings, highlighting the need to improve financing in existing policies, including better land-use planning to take account of water needs, introducing more widespread use of pricing and metering technologies – in households and agriculture – as well as promoting water-efficient devices.

  • 26-31 Aug.: World Water Week, organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute in the Swedish capital. The focus of the event is water and food security.

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